Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson faces a critical offseason on the recruiting trail.
ATLANTA – A long-time Georgia Tech observer once wrote “Paul Johnson on the hot seat? Not this century.”
The newspaper columnist penned that piece in mid-2010, in the wake of the Yellow Jackets’ ACC title and Orange Bowl appearance. The column’s premise was that Johnson’s spunk and swagger so endeared him to Tech fans that they’d love him unconditionally forever.
The logic seemed sound. Even the cynics were impressed with Johnson’s early success. Expectations were for greater things once Johnson had stocked the roster with players recruited for his system.
No one anticipated those early years would be Johnson’s golden years.
The program has stagnated since that column was penned, and many think the Yellow Jackets bottomed out this fall. Georgia Tech posted one of the ugliest 7-5 seasons possible, with two wins against lower-tier FCS foes. The signature win came against Duke, and the Yellow Jackets choked away two games, blowing a 17-point lead against Miami and a 20-point lead versus Georgia.
As for Johnson’s 90-season grace period? It’s over, 86 years early, no matter how the Yellow Jackets fare against Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30.
Newbie athletic director Mike Bobinski won’t fire Johnson this offseason, but the coach better contend for the ACC title and beat the hated Bulldogs in 2014. Otherwise, he’ll be looking for work. That’s about as hot as a coach’s seat gets.
Johnson will have little insulation. He loses three starting offensive linemen, his biggest playmaker in Robbie Godhigh, his best pass-rusher in Jeremiah Attaochu and his top pass-defender in Jemea Thomas. He’s facing yet another quarterback controversy after an uninspiring season by Vad Lee, and the 2014 showdown with Georgia is on the road.
Georgia Tech does have a weak non-conference slate (FCS Wofford, FBS newcomer Georgia Southern and Tulane, in addition to Georgia) and will play lowly N.C. State in its crossover game. Plus, the Yellow Jackets will face Miami and Clemson at home.
Johnson’s issues are more about his roster rotation than the Yellow Jackets’ opponent rotation. The biggest difference between Johnson andhis predecessor, Chan Gailey, isn’t the way they assess risk (Johnson embraces it; Gailey avoided it) or their offensive schemes (triple-option vs. pro-style), it is in recruiting.
And unfortunately for Johnson, he’s no Gailey on the recruiting trail.
Johnson inherited top-half-of-the-ACC talent from Gailey in 2008. Georgia Tech has been creeping back toward the cellar-dwellers since. Johnson will finally see several of his recruits go in the NFL draft this year, with Attaochu, Thomas and some – if not all – of the linemen are sure to be taken in April. But it is more than a little telling that arguably the most productive skill player he’s ever recruited out of high school (Godhigh) came to Georgia Tech as a walk-on.
The Yellow Jackets’ talent shortfall makes the next two months as important for Johnson as the last four of 2014. He needs to hang on to recruits currently committed – the recruiting services rank the class in the top-50 – and nail down Notre Dame transfer Lo Wood.
Wood is a one-time Johnson recruit who ultimately chose the Irish over the Yellow Jackets. He will earn his bachelor’s degree this month and has announced his intention to transfer to a program where he can compete for playing time. He was a regular in Notre Dame’s secondary in 2010 and 2011, only to suffer a season-ending knee injury in 2012 preseason camp. The year off resulted in a fall down the depth chart, and he played sparingly this fall.
Wood wants a chance to start in his senior season, prompting his decision to transfer. Two Georgia Tech starting defensive backs, Thomas and Louis Young, exhaust their eligibility with the Music City Bowl. Sophomore D.J. White is coming off a breakout season, and pencil in Isaiah Johnson at safety. The other two spots are open for competition, and Wood could transfer in for the start of the second semester in time to participate in spring practice.
Wood’s father, Lo Sr., told the Orlando Sentinel his son is looking at other programs in addition to Georgia Tech. He mentioned Central Florida and Miami, two schools close to the family home in Apopka, Fla.
Rivalry Games Key, Too
Solid recruiting returns alone won’t save Johnson. Georgia Tech is 0-8 the last two years against the opponents that count most – Coastal Division foes Miami and Virginia Tech and rivals Clemson and Georgia. The Yellow Jackets haven’t beaten the hated Bulldogs since 2008, Johnson’s first season. Blowing a 20-0 lead against an injury-depleted Georgia team this year stung the fans. Winning that game alone would have earned Johnson a season’s worth – or more – of goodwill.
The fans want to embrace him again. After all, Johnson’s still the brash, go-for-broke wildcard that columnist wrote about four years ago. He now has an equally intense defensive coordinator in Ted Roof, who is a Tech guy to boot, and every fan remembers the magic Johnson’s offense can produce.
The further away Johnson gets from 2009, though, the more those memories fade. And the hotter his coaching seat gets. His assessment of the 2013 season won’t inspire much confidence in the fanbase.
“We had a chance in all those (losses) to win the game – woulda, shoulda, coulda – and we didn’t,” Johnson said the day after Tech accepted the Music City Bowl berth. “We probably had chances to lose a couple we won, too. That’s the way it works. You’re disappointed.”
So are the Tech faithful. And their patience is running out.